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Travelling outside your comfort zone

June 10th, 2008 · No Comments

Roaming through Johannesburg, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zanzibar was a clarifying experience. You can Google to your hearts content, or talk to other people who have travelled through Africa but at the end of the day your experience will be truly unique – your little piece of meaning and magic to remember. No amount of pictures you have in an album can ever capture this magic.

Six years ago you couldn’t get me to travel anywhere without western standard luxuries. Yep I was one of ‘those’ gals who wouldn’t dare go without a shower, hairdryer or clean clothing for a day. Age and travelling have two things in common- they are both great clarifies. The older you get the more you are prepared to let go of the superficial things in life. The more you travel the more ridiculous these superficial things seem.

So lets rewind the clock a few years to explain how I got to this point. When I met Julian my partner we both wanted to travel. Julian was more adventurous than I was but he slowly worked his plan.  Initially he planned relatively safe holiday destinations, first came New Zealand with an introduction to hiking at the Milford Track.  I guess it was my naivety that made me agreeable but somehow he talked me into quad biking and white water rafting. After a near death experience involving me, a quad and a wheelie (good movie title) I decided that holidays were much more exciting when there was an element of adventure and danger.  After spending 7 days walking the Overland Track in Tasmania and experiencing car sized possums trying to break into my tent at night, I was now prepared to take on the next adventure- destination Africa 2007/2008.

Q. How do you know you are in Africa?

A. When you see baboons on the road instead of kangaroos.

Q.  How do you really really know you are in Africa?

A.  When you see a sign that says “Do things the right way and not the corrupt way”.

The three most memorable moments for me during my trip in Africa in no particular order. Getting dusty driving through the Serengeti Plains, reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in a blizzard and nearly going to prison in Malawi on Christmas day. I will speak about my Serengeti and Kilimanjaro adventures in a different post but the experience of thinking you are going to prison in Malawi goes something like this.

Mr Malawi Official

We stopped at the Malawi border to have our passports stamped. We were told to take off our sunglasses and hats and behave.  There was tension in the air as everyone lined up and waited. I had that same feeling as I usually do when I line up at the airport to get my bags checked at security; its guilt and I don’t have anything to feel guilty about!  Mr Malawi Official wearing his red beret eyeballed me looked down at my passport and eyeballed me again. He continued with this strategy for a while. He was clearly enjoying his power trip and warming into his role as he explained that according to our passport, we should have left Zambia a day before. Word of advice, don’t start your sentence with ‘Woopsie’. Julian and I tried to explain that it wasn’t our fault but it was like trying to convince a devil worshiper that god is great. Mr Malawi Official was clearly up for best actor as he explained how serious this offence was and threw the word ‘prison’ in his sentence for good measure. I was torn between a couple of way outs. Bribery was the first option. I had witnessed first hand that African Officials don’t actually care about money as much as magazines. If you carry a copy of Cleo, Women’s Weekly or TV week, a magazine is a worth its weight in gold.  (I guess they are not familiar with the corrupt sign). Secondly I thought about putting on the water works, but figured that my acting skills would never fool Mr Malawi Official. After some further consideration, Mr Malawi Official decided that he was going to let us off.  His reason was that it was ho ho ho Christmas but I wondered if he couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork.

The Feathered Ball

Exciting things seemed to happen at borders.  During our stop at the Tanzania border I noticed a child was holding something small and feathery.  Being the curious gal I am, I got a little closer to get a better look and saw that the child was holding a dead bird. At first I thought he was trying to sell the bird for money but then I realised he was doing this for his own amusement. He was trying to either entertain or scare off tourists. I watched as he threw the little dead body up in the air catching it in one hand over and over again like he was throwing a ball. I wondered how he had killed his little feathered ball.

The Mooning

During one of our nights in Livingstone we took a cruise on the Zambezi.  A group of teenage tourists were on the boat.  We expected to see wildlife but we didn’t expect to see it in human form.  The group of tourists were drunk and loud.  At first it didn’t bother me, let them have fun and all.  Then I started to feel uncomfortable when the staff on the boat began to serve some snacks consisting of stale bread and stale chips.  They were doing their best to provide an entertaining and peaceful cruise on the mighty Zambezi and the rowdy behaviour was making them uncomfortable. The drunks were turning up the noise levels than I realised why I felt uncomfortable.  It was actually disrespectful to the African people.  The final straw came when the boat was docking and the group decided to moon in front of crowds of people waiting for the next cruise.  I was appalled and embarrassed.   Perhaps there is a time and a place for mooning but it should be left behind in your own country (pardon the pun).  This was clearly disrespectful to local culture.

The little Malawi Boy

I am going to be honest about how I felt when I walked through a village in Malawi. The first thing that hit me was an intense smell, sort of like a cross between sewerage and rotting meat, the smell was overpowering and made me dry-retch. I was soon confronted by the sight of dirty snotty nosed and sick children.

I was an emotional wreck and felt heart broken and repulsed at the same time. Bare-foot and dirty children were fighting to hold my hand and I was worried about catching something. I know it sounds horrible but that was my initial response. We always fear the unknown. I never really knew what that meant until I was exposed to the unknown. I mentally slapped myself and then looked down to see this beautiful little African boy looking up at me with big malaria diseased eyes. I instantly fell in love with my little Malawi boy. He couldn’t speak a word of English but it didn’t matter because all he wanted to do was hold my hand and look up at me every so often with his shy smile and big brown eyes. He held my hand and with his other he clutched his prized possession – my plastic water bottle. Would he live past 30? It would be unlikely in Malawi.

The Crocodile and the Chicks

One day we had a bit of chuckle, Julian and I took a tour on the Zambezi River in an old tin dinghy through crocodile and hippo infested waters. Our guide explained that crocodiles were located every 100 meters. I looked down at my life jacket and wondered why I was wearing it. If our rusty dingy sank I was in no danger of death by drowning. I would be killed by a hungry croc or an territorial hippo instead! To prove my point we stopped near a tree as I admired a flock of birds. I followed the guides finger as he pointed to the water. Two little snouts and eyes were peaking just above the surface. The crocs were patiently waiting for a chick to fall into the water. An opportune moment!

Mr Smooth

What’s a trip to Africa without the touts. It’s nothing in particularly until you meet a character who calls himself Mr Smooth. Mr Smooth was by far my favourite tout. Prior to my trip in Africa I had boned up on the literature that advised against tourists giving money or pens because it encourages people to beg.

I found this to be quite true but I was not prepared for being asked for my shoes or the shirt off my back! Mr Smooth was  true to his name impressing me with his knowledge of Australia, he knew more about Australian politics than I did and was able to rattle off a list of Prime Ministers since 1966. I could see Julian in the background smirking at my naivety. Mr Smooth obviously made every efforts to learn about all countries not just Australia in the hope he would eventually score a pair of shoes.

African people are very shy, I found it really hard to get hard to get to know the real African. I wondered about the people that were friendly, were they genuinely friendly or were they being friendly in order to get a shirt or a pair of shoes? Africans perceive tourists as being rich, why wouldn’t they after all we visited a hospital in Malawi that had equipment from the 1960s and a school that had New Zealand hand me down books from the 1950s.

Three Growling Jacks

There are lots of rabid dogs in Africa and I was a little nervous because that was one booster I decided not to bother with. Its hard for me to stay away from animals so I was relieved to find that at each campsite there was one rabid free camp dog.   At one particular camp site, three Jack Russles literally owned and ran the place. They were the friendliest little creatures and sat on our laps as we sat and watched the stars one night.  The silence was broken when one of the little jacks growled, the other two followed lead and then there were off barking and growling into the night.   We thought they had spotted a possum, oops wrong country, lets say a monkey.  We were mistaken, they had spotted the care taker and this tense relationship played out like circus act.  The jacks began to pull at the care taker’s trousers, one jack at one leg, two at the other growling as seriously as a jack could. We could hear the care taker  (mostly likely swearing) yelling at the dogs and trying to desperately  kick them off.  We called them back and they immediately returned, wagging tails, smiley faces, jumping on our laps as if nothing had happened.   We found out later that care taker turnover  at this campsite was high.

The Fishing Dogs

This brings me to dog story number 2.   At Kande Beach in Malawi there were a couple of campsite dogs playing around on the beach one evening.   I noticed them slip into the water so naturally I thought they were going for an evening dip but things didn’t look quite right  when they started a frenzied nose diving session.  I was puzzled by this behaviour until Julian pointed out that they were catching their dinner.  My dog’s dinner comes in a bowl so I watched fascinated by this state of affairs.  One paddled the other one nose dived, they took it turns and so it continued.  I wish I could tell you that they caught a couple of fine fish but unfortunately the dogs gave up…. after an hour.

No matter where you are in the world – your mum will always find you.

Prior to leaving Africa I did what all good daughters do for their neurotic and anxious mothers, I gave her a detailed itinerary.  When the riots in Kenya broke out Julian and I were not exposed to any immediate danger because we had planned to make our last stop in Tanzania.  If my mum had bothered to read the itinerary she would have known this but of course she became as frenzied as the nose diving pooches at Kande beach.    We had been travelling on an overland truck and during the long days of travel the only way that our tour guides could communicate  was by noting passing through the front cabin hatch.  I was dozing when it happened.  A note was being  passed from person to person until it reached me.  A light tap on the shoulder and there it was, a note under my nose which read.  “Katherine, you need to phone your mum at next possible place.  She’s phoned our central office and is worried about the Kenya thing – Wants to know if you are still alive”. Good old mums – they always find a way!

I fell in love with Africa for all sorts of unusual reasons. Call me nuts but I loved spending nights in small bamboo huts infested with lizards and spiders. I loved going to the post office and seeing chickens running around in front of the door. I even loved being hassled by touts, yes its all true!

Africa was indeed an intensely eye opening adventure. I experienced a small piece of life in Africa and it will remain with me forever. Once you get the spirit of Africa into your blood in never leaves you.

Tags: africa · travel

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